Feature

Close-Up: Live issue - James Best reflects on 30 years inadvertising

Having called time on his agency career, the DDB veteran looks at how the industry has changed over the past four decades.

If a week is a long time in politics, 30 years must represent geological aeons in advertising.

So, what's changed since I joined the industry in 1975? One thing hasn't: to do good advertising is hard. Our business is the hinge between a business world where decisions are based on rational argument, economic analysis and financial discipline, and the world of individuals, whose decisions are intuitive, irrational and personal. That is a fascinating place to be, but not an easy one. Nor is it getting any easier. But there were always difficulties and frustrations, and if some things have got tougher, others have improved.

For instance, the work is better. Thirty years ago, Boase Massimi Pollitt's and Collett Dickenson Pearce's ads stood out because they were oases of freshness in a desert of dross. Now, it's harder to be so much better, because the floor is higher. But you can still raise the ceiling, as Honda has shown.

The palette available for advertising thinking and creativity is immeasurably richer now. John Webster's genius was expressed through one medium - short TV commercials. As his planners, our horizons were limited, too, by the assumption that mass media would achieve all we wanted. Now, creatives and planners can work with clients and consumers in so many more ways, online and off.

In 1983, Martin Boase claimed London was "the Athens of advertising". But, in business terms, London was predominantly local. The US ruled and many quite big markets were entirely underdeveloped in their advertising. Now, London is a global hub for creative services, as for financial services. The advertising world looks to London for creative quality, strategic depth and intellectual leadership. UK talent is sought from the highest levels of management to the newest digital disciplines, while planners remain a staple British export.

Agencies were notoriously primitive in talent management; we were spoilt for choice and assumed loyalty would follow success. Now, thanks to the "war for talent" and the IPA, the nurturing and development of our people's skills and careers is a management priority.

There are things which have got worse. The rough justice of commissions has been supplanted by wrangling over scope of work, overhead ratios and FTEs (full-time equivalent). This was inevitable, with our divorce of creative and media disciplines and with client companies' need for savings. But the long-term benefit to either party is dubious. Individual pay has suffered, too.

Durable relationships are now the exceptions. As clients' own professionalism has increased, so their respect for agencies' professionalism has waned; as the pressures on them have grown, so they have cast about for alternative solutions; as their job security has diminished, so has that of their agencies.

Society has every right to decide what commercial communications it will allow. Special interest groups now wield greater influence and social attitudes have hardened against significant areas of advertising. We are blessed in the UK with an effective self- and co-regulatory system; we must support it.

And, as a final shot, while London's restaurants may have become the world's finest, there's too little time to enjoy them these days.

- James Best is retiring as the DDB Worldwide chief people and strategic officer in March.

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